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Archives - February 2019

What Should We Do?

February 24, 2019
By Rev. David French

Luke 6:27-38

Have you ever wondered what God wants you to do? As you probably know from your own reading of the gospels, last week’s lesson was the first half of the sermon Jesus gave on the mount and later finished on the plain. After the healings and the proclaiming of blessings and woes, He continues with a list of things for those who hear Him, that means believers, to do. So, if you’ve ever wondered, “What does God want me to do?” then this is your lucky day.

This, of course, is not the only list God gives us. For example, when Jesus was asked by the rich young man in Mathew 19 what he had to do to be saved, Jesus basically said obey the commandments. When told, I’ve already done that, Jesus repied,”If you want to be perfect sell everything you have and follow Me,” and then young man turned and went away sad. A few verses later the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?”  Jesus looked at them (and is looking at us as well) and said, “With man this (or salvation) is impossible, (and here’s the key for all biblical lists) but with God all things are possible.”

So today Jesus gives us another list of things for those who hear Him when He says in Luke 6:35, “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return and your reward will be great.” But this list is no more doable than any other list we might find. The truth is, what we’re asking isn’t really what should we do. We all know the difference between right and wrong, as God revealed through Jeremiah, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.”  Don’t we, who know Christ, know that when we show love and goodness, it’s the result of God, the Holy Spirit working through us? Have you not found in your own life the truth of Paul’s words, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out.”?

The truth is, we don’t want a list that shows us our sins. We want a list of things we, not God, can do, and so prove to ourselves and to others that we’re saved or at least doing our part toward our salvation. But that implies that we still think that there’s something we can do to earn our salvation.

Tell me, why do you think that we, in our heart of hearts, continue to believe that we need to add to what Christ has done for us? You know that on the cross of Calvary Christ poured out His blood to pay for your sins and mine. You know the words Jesus cried out “It is finished!” You know that Jesus was raised from the dead for your justification. You know the Scriptures teach that everything that needs to be done for your salvation has been done.

So, what is it after years of living in God’s kingdom that leads us to continue to ask, “what should we do to get God’s kingdom?” The fact is, we’re still living in a world that calls good “evil” and evil “good.” We see, experience, feel, and live our sin every day, and we only hear about our forgiveness. We continue to struggle with our sinful nature and wonder why, but the truth is, we will always have that struggle on this side of heaven.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to you. Defending the truth that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone is a battle that the Church has been fighting since the time of her beginning. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel -- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. ... This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (1:6-7, 2:4-5).

The questions we have about our Christian living are serious, and I believe they come from concern, not doubt. But, I know they’re not going to be answered by me suggesting another list of things to do. I can only point you to the cross of Jesus Christ, because it is the power of His gospel that gives us the ability to live as His children.

Being a Christian isn’t about what we do, even when it’s good. It’s about what we are, as children of God. That’s the point of the lesson for today. It’s not about loving or blessing or praying. It’s about the gospel changing hearts; a change that happens in response to God’s love, a change that leads to our loving and blessing and praying as His Spirit guides us. 

All of these things are good - when they come from a heart that believes the forgiveness we ourselves have received is real. It is God’s word alone that creates and sustains the faith that trusts in Christ alone. So, no matter the question, I will continue to point you to Christ and His cross where all of our questions were answered when our sins were paid for.

Certainly, we try to live God-pleasing lives. We do that by following the commands He has already given in His Word and written on our hearts. These are pleasing to God unless they come from hearts that see these as things that will earn God’s love instead of things that are fruits of God’s love. As we read in the book of Hebrews 11:6a, “And without faith it is impossible to please God ….”

The question we should be asking is, “How can we do what God has already told us we should do?” not, “What should we do?” Look at our lesson for today. After Jesus goes through this list, He basically says to do all these and your reward will be great. Now look at the next words where He defines that reward, “And you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and evil.” That is, He is kind to you and me, who as you well know, though we may try, we daily we fall short of His command to love.

Of course, we want and should let our light shine before men so they can see our good deeds, but remember the rest of that verse is ... not so they will recognize and admire us or so we can prove we are who we say we are. The verse found in Matthew 5 reads, “...let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

If you want to know what you should do, I would say, “Be who you are, a forgiven child of God. Be in His Word so that your faith will be sustained in your daily struggles. Be regular in your use of His Supper, the gift of His very body and blood given and shed for you and the forgiveness of your sins. Be in prayer because there is great comfort offered to all with His promise to always hear and answer you. And always remember your baptism, for it was there that God made you His child and promised, to always with you.”

In His Name, Amen.

If

February 17, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Epistle lesson, where Paul writes, [I]f Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

While doing some research for this sermon, I thought I’d try to find some information about an archaeological hullabaloo I first heard about over a decade ago. The issue I had in mind was related to the so-called “James Ossuary” box, which purportedly contained the bones of James the Lesser, Jesus’s brother. Fascinating as that is, what I found instead was much more interesting. Something I have legitimately never heard about before. Humor me for a moment, as I read part of an article I found from the Smithsonian in 2013 entitled, “The Little Known Legend of Jesus in Japan,” subtitled, “A mountain hamlet in northern Japan claims Jesus Christ was buried there.”

On the flat top of a steep hill in a distant corner of northern Japan lies the tomb of an itinerant shepherd who, two millennia ago, settled down there to grow garlic. He fell in love with a farmer’s daughter named Miyuko, fathered three kids and died at the ripe old age of 106. In the mountain hamlet of Shingo, he’s remembered by the name Daitenku Taro Jurai. The rest of the world knows him as Jesus Christ.

It turns out that Jesus of Nazareth—the Messiah, worker of miracles and spiritual figurehead for one of the world’s foremost religions—did not die on the cross at Calvary, as widely reported. According to amusing local folklore, that was his kid brother, Isukiri, whose severed ear was interred in an adjacent burial mound in Japan.

A bucolic backwater with only one Christian resident (Toshiko Sato, who was 77 when I visited last spring) and no church within 30 miles, Shingo nevertheless bills itself as Kirisuto no Sato (Christ’s Hometown). Every year 20,000 or so pilgrims and pagans visit the site, which is maintained by a nearby yogurt factory. Some visitors shell out the 100-yen entrance fee at the Legend of Christ Museum, a trove of religious relics that sells everything from Jesus coasters to coffee mugs. Some participate in the springtime Christ Festival, a mashup of multidenominational rites in which kimono-clad women dance around the twin graves and chant a three-line litany in an unknown language. The ceremony, designed to console the spirit of Jesus, has been staged by the local tourism bureau since 1964.

Yes, you heard that right. According to this legend, Jesus of Nazareth did not even die on the cross, let alone rise from the dead. Where did this absurd claim come from? The author explains that it springs from several sources. He mentions the overt nationalism of Japan prior to World War II leading to other preposterous claims, such as Moses getting the Hebrew language and the Ten Commandments from the divine emperor of Japan. He also points to the clear intentions of the mayor of Shingo to drive tourism in his little town. For these reasons and others, one can reasonably conclude that this claim is entirely bunk. There is not one iota of verifiable proof to back up the claim that Jesus is buried in Shingo, Japan.

To be frank, there’s nothing new about this. Apparently, in the Corinthian community there were some who, likewise, didn’t really think Jesus actually rose from the dead. Thus, Paul writes, Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. When you think about it, and carry it through to its logical conclusion as Paul does, to deny Jesus’s literal physical bodily resurrection carries with it some terrifying implications.

Paul continues, And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

In other words, if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, we’re toast. Done. Finito. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that, if Jesus isn’t raised from the dead, then your sins are NOT forgiven – sure, Jesus died on the cross for you, but apparently, it did nothing. If it did nothing and you still want to get right with God, well then you need to go out and get a lamb without blemish for sacrifice – actually, you’ll want to get several of those because you are clearly going to need to offer many sacrifices from now until the day you die. No, if Jesus did not rise from the dust of death, then there was no sacrifice once, for all, and the burden falls upon you to claw your way out of damnation.

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead to the glory of God the Father, then there’s no such thing as “justification by grace, through faith.” We’re just like any other religion in the world – trying to earn our way into God’s or Sheva’s or Horus’s good graces. That’s the other thing; if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then He’s just another person who died – tragically, brutally, horrifically to be sure, but He’s just some guy. That means that you need to figure out which god is the true god, because clearly, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then He’s not Who He said He was: the Son of God.

If it’s true that Jesus is still dead, then my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, all my Christian relatives and yours are just dead. They’re not resting from their labors, not eagerly anticipating their own resurrections on the Last Day. No, if Jesus is just dead, then they’re just worm food, fodder and fertilizer for the trees. If Jesus is not risen, they are just another cog in the “great circle of life and death.”

If Jesus is still dead, we are too. If Jesus is still dead, we’ve got no hope. YOU have no hope. You are still dead in your sins if Jesus wasn’t raised. Your baptism means nothing, your partaking of the Supper means nothing, my words and Pastor French’s words and the words of the countless millions and billions of Christians throughout time and space mean absolutely NOTHING! And you should just go chuck your Bible into the fire.

... BUT … and this is a very important “but” … all those “ifs” are not the reality. Paul lays bare for us the truth: But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

Every contention that we just considered, every conclusion we just reached is null and void. THIS is the reality: Jesus died on a cross – His body broken and bleeding, His lungs finally giving out, His heart pierced by the centurion’s spear. He was dead, wrapped up, laid in a tomb by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. There was no life in Him; He had breathed His last, and given up His spirit, killing with Him the sin of all humanity that He had taken upon and into Himself. But three days later, on that fateful Sunday morning, He breathed again. His pierced heart began to beat again. His blood that was shed for you once again flowed through His holy veins. No longer dead, but truly alive, raised from death, Jesus set out to demonstrate to His disciples that death had no hold on Him, that the grave could not keep Him, and that His sacrifice for sin on behalf of humanity was accepted in the Father’s eyes. The ramifications of this truth are unparalleled!

Because Jesus is alive, your sins are forgiven! Because Jesus is alive, your loved ones who have gone before you in the faith are at rest in the presence of the resurrected and very much alive Jesus right now, at this moment, and we most assuredly WILL be seeing them again! Because Jesus is alive, raised from the dust of death, He shows Himself to be Who He says He is: the exclusive Son of God, ascended to the Father’s right hand, and the righteous Judge Who will return on the Last Day! Because Jesus is alive, you and I and every Christian throughout time and space will likewise be raised to eternal life! We aren’t a people to be pitied; we are the people of hope, because Christ is the hope of the hopeless! Because He is risen, we shall arise! Because He is alive, at the right hand of the Father, we too will live in God’s holy presence! Because He lives forever, we shall live forever! He has given us these great and precious promises, and the One Who kept His Word – the One who said that when His enemies killed Him, He would rise again … and did – that same One will keep His promises to you!

I know we haven’t even reached Lent yet, let alone Easter, but this is the reality we live with every single day – no ifs, ands, or buts about it!! CHRIST IS RISEN! HE IS RISEN, INDEED! ALLELUIA!

+ Amen. +

The Right Reaction

February 10, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

Luke 5:1-11

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel lesson, where Luke records, [W]hen Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’s knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” … And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

What’s the normal reaction to a miracle? Jesus performed many, and every time He did, we’re told that there were people who were amazed, exclaiming some version of the question, “Who is this?” Sometimes, if the Pharisees were present, they responded with anger, frustration, steeling their resolve to bring death to this Galilean rabbi. However, sometimes the reaction people have to the miraculous is actually dread, and that is what we’ve got here in our Gospel lesson.

It’s still fairly early in Jesus’s earthly ministry, but apparently, He’s garnered something of a following – there’s a crowd pressing around Him, wanting to hear the Word of God from Him. Presumably to help all those present hear better, Jesus asks Peter to take Him out in his boat a little way from shore that He may teach the crowds. Peter acquiesces, and Jesus gives the people the word they need to hear. Once He’s done, for whatever reason, Jesus asks Peter to “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter seems hesitant, as he tells Jesus, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” He says this with the understanding that, if that yielded nothing when night fishing is supposed to be far more fruitful, there seemed little chance that the fishing would be better during the day. Nevertheless, Peter says, “But at Your word I will let down the nets.”

The result? So many fish the nets start breaking, and Peter has to call some of his fellow workers over to help him haul in this massive catch. Even with the added vessel and the extra help, the amount of fish caught is so copious that BOTH boats are in danger of going under! While most folks would have just rejoiced in the fact that they had hauled in such an incredible catch, Peter does not. So incredible is this catch, so unlikely is it to occur naturally without the direct intervention of God Himself, that he recognizes Jesus for Who He is. Luke tells us that Peter falls down at Jesus’s knees, and begs, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

It’s worth mentioning that this is the miracle that turned the lightbulb on for Peter. He had seen Jesus cast out demons, heal his mother-in-law of her fever, heal many others afflicted with illnesses and demons, but this miracle …. This one apparently affects Peter to the point that he recognizes just Who it is kneeling in the boat with him: this is God, and his reaction to this realization is to drop on his face and ask this God-Man to go away from him because he knew his sin, his brokenness in the face of holiness, could and would be his undoing.

Does that sound familiar? It should; we had a similar account in our Old Testament text where Isaiah has a vision of YHWH’s imperial throne room in His temple. Even as the seraphim are flittering to and fro crying “Holy! Holy! Holy!” Isaiah, this holy ancient prophet, is filled with dread as he looks upon YHWH sitting on His throne. “Woe is me!” he cries out, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

To encounter God as a mortal, to see the impossible occur in real time, to encounter holiness as a sinner, is abjectly terrifying. It’s something entirely foreign to us, something we cannot fathom, something we cannot conceive; so anticipating death and bemoaning one’s existence is, actually, a reasonable reaction to a display of raw divinity. To confess one’s sin, as Peter did, is a reasonable reaction for a broken and wretched sinner coming into the presence of the Living God.

Reasonable and right, but what is the response of the Holy One to these contrite and terrified confessions? Not, “Oh, you SHOULD be scared!” It’s not “Yeah, I know ALL your history and whoof, you are a rotten sinner!” True as those statements may be, that’s not how the Holy One operates when His people come before Him humbled and broken and contrite. His response … is mercy.

To Isaiah, one of the seraphim holds a burning coal to his lips and says, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” For Peter, it was Jesus Himself telling him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” God’s response to contrition, to repentance … is absolution; forgiveness. God would not ask, “Well, are you really sorry for what you did? ‘Cuz if you’re not, then I’m not going to forgive you!” He would not say to the penitent, “How many times have you done this before, and didn’t amend your ways? Why on earth should I forgive you now?” No, that’s a human reaction. A sinner’s reaction. To the broken and contrite heart, our God shows mercy, forgiveness, and love.

Now, sin still has to be dealt with, but that’s not something we can do. Only God can deal with sin … and He has. Within three years of this miraculous catch of fish, the world would see this same Galilean rabbi beaten, bloodied, lifted high on the torturous killing machine called a cross. There, this same Jesus Who called Peter and those fishermen with him to follow Him and be fishers of men … would become sin incarnate, in order to kill it. He would bear our sin and pay the penalty in the most gruesome and horrific death imaginable. There, on that cross, we see the true face of divinity in Jesus, and we rightly bemoan our existence, confessing our sin in the presence of sheer holiness.

Because that is the proper response: fear and awe. It is contrition, repentance, and death to self. But a merciful Lord lifts our eyes … declares us to be clean and forgiven, as He did a few minutes ago in the words of Holy Absolution … and He invites us to go about His work, to spread this message far, and to bring those who need this message near. So drop the nets, cast them wide; your sins are forgiven and Jesus invites you to go fishing.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

No Strings Attached

February 03, 2019
By Rev. David French

Luke 4:31-44

I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it strange that in our lesson for today Jesus tells the demons to be silent because, as verse 41 tells us, “they knew that He was the Christ.” Now, I could understand if Jesus was commanding the demons to keep silent because they were lying, but they were proclaiming the truth about Jesus and who He was. “You are the Holy One of God—the Christ—the promised Messiah. Have you come to destroy us?” Last I checked, Jesus is the Holy One of God, the promised Messiah and Savior, and He did come to destroy sin, death, and the devil. Isn’t that the good news that people need to hear?

I understand being conflicted about the demons, but is there anything wrong with what they said? So, why would Jesus command anyone—St. Peter or demons—to remain silent about the truth of Who He is? To speak or not to speak should never be a question when it comes to evangelism and sharing Christ, should it?

Well, let’s think about that. I mean, think about what was being heard and seen by this crowd while these demons screamed their confessions. More to the point, think about what or who wasn’t being heard while the people were witnessing this great and miraculous event.

You and I both know that it’s very easy to miss significant portions of the proclaiming of God’s Word in sermons by simply becoming fixated on something or someone around us. We get distracted and don’t even know what we missed, which is exactly what satan wants. How often like puppets on his evil strings we play right into his hands. And it’s not a “you” thing, it’s a sinful human thing.

It happens to me when Pastor Heckert is preaching. There have certainly been times I’ve thought, “I would have said that this way,” and that is a distraction, a portion of God’s word that I missed. Consider for yourself, how often have you walked out of church and not remembered hymns or who we prayed for or what the sermon was about because you had been focusing on where you’re going to go to eat or how much you have to do today or what time the game starts. Again, that’s exactly what satan wants and also what Christ wants to avoid.

I’m sure you’d all agree that if someone was convulsing and thrashing around in the middle aisle, I wouldn’t have your full attention, that you would be distracted and just stop listening. That’s why Jesus told the demons to “be quiet.” He simply didn’t want the wrong assumptions to be made about Him or His ministry.

“You are the Holy One of God; the Christ.” Absolutely true, but Jesus wanted to avoid the danger of people wrongly associating “the Christ” with earthly healing and prosperity, which is today sadly what many well-meaning Christians wrongly consider to be “evangelism.” Hey, got a problem … not one Jesus can’t fix! Jesus can get you a job, increase your wealth, find you friends, and fill your belly. And don’t forget, He also cures diseases and drives out demons! But is that what the Messiah is all about, helping us live the good life here and now?

So, what happens when you get tired of pretending? What happens when you’re new job is no better than the old … even after you decided to “leave it in God’s hands”? What happens if your marriage still fails, even after you decided to “be more faithful” in church and Bible study attendance? What happens when the medical test results are the worst possible news, even after you and everyone you know prayed for healing?

Tell me, do you think that these negative realities of living in a sinful world can kill faithful ministry? Do you think the faithful just turn a cold shoulder to Christ and His gifts, to the Good News that they are completely forgiven and redeemed in Christ’s all-atoning death and justifying resurrection because any material or physical blessings they may have been seeking didn’t come to be?

It’s truly sad to say, but sometimes, yeah. We, who are born of sin, have a real knack for acting more like consumers and customers who are “always right” as opposed to humble Christians who joyfully receive all that comes from God’s hands, and that’s exactly what Christ didn’t want to happen. This is why He told the demons to be quiet.

Remember Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He didn’t want the wrong conclusion to be drawn about Him, His message, or the means of salvation. And from the mouths of demons, even the truth can be used to mislead.

The message that needs to be heard is the message of Christ’s all-redeeming suffering, death, and resurrection. And this isn’t just a religious truth, this is the truth. There’s nothing in this life more important! Christ carried and suffered for the sins of the world, and so, all who make up the world have been forgiven through the blood Christ shed on the cross. How sad it is so many have been distracted in this life that they missed the truth that Christ did it for them.

That is after all, what we confess in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, “we are all conceived and born sinful” and under the power of the devil. Yes—we are all, because of our sinful nature, the one we’re born with, controlled by satan. But our Lord and Savior mercifully comes to us, not because we deserve it, but because He loves us and knows better than we that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. In fact, when we are still dead in sin, God graciously and mercifully comes down to us and claims us as His own. 

Remember it is God, Paul writes to the Corinthians, who: “… set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” He does that through the waters of our baptism. He comes to us and sets us free from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. He works in us a great and glorious exchange in those baptismal waters, freely giving us His son’s victory over sin and death, the victory He earned by taking our sins and death upon Himself and carrying them to the cross, where in the afternoon darkness His words rang out, “It is finished.” The debt for sin, yours, mine, and all who are born of Adam, was paid in full.

Today our Lord continues to come to us with His all-redeeming Words of forgiveness and hope even as we continue to live in our sin. He comes to us here at the railing, calling us out of the sinful world for just that moment so that we might joyfully return to our everyday lives living in His peace; that peace that surpasses all human understanding. That’s a love that only God Himself has, and He has it for you. It’s the love that sent His only begotten Son to live, die, and rise for you.

The love of God is why Christ instituted His Church on earth. While certainly God is everywhere, there are specific place’s He has promised to meet with us, that is through His Word and in His Sacraments. His church is where God in His wisdom has chosen to distribute those holy gifts by grace through faith to all who hold to Christ alone. Through these Means of Grace, our God offers to you again this day new life with no strings attached.

In Jesus’s Name, Amen

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